Conservation vs. Development: A Tale of Two Parks

By Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
Updated September 26, 2003

TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. This column, updated for National Geographic News, appeared originally in the print magazine. Look for TravelWatch every other Friday.

A man named Duck, talking about elk, finally helped me understand Banff's problem. Peter Duck, an interpretive guide, was leading a few of us visitors up to a bluff above Lake Louise in this most popular of Canadian national parks. Supposedly, the park was in big ecological trouble. Its trademark grizzly bears were under threat. But as we scrunched our way upward through last year's early November snow, the Engelmann spruce and gleaming peaks looked postcard perfect. I was baffled. How could this vast, 2,564-square-mile (6,640-square-kilometer) park be hurting? The answer—and the solution that Banffites are working out—holds broad lessons for parks, visitors, and the growing "gateway communities" that serve them.

Mr. Duck explained the ecology. At our elevation—about 7,000 feet (2,130 meters)—we might see marten, snowshoe hare, and maybe wolverine. But not elk. Nor wolves. Up here, the winter snow is too deep for them, so they stay mainly down in the park's lower lands, in the Bow Valley. Much grizzly bear habitat also lies in the valley.

Problem is, the Bow Valley also holds a railway, the Trans-Canada Highway, a golf course, a parkway, a cadet camp, an airstrip, campgrounds, the tourist town of Banff, and most of the park's 4.6 million annual visitors. Human-wildlife clashes are inevitable. Trucks and trains kill elk and grizzlies. Indeed, researchers blame 98 percent of the 639 known grizzly deaths from 1971 to 1996 on some kind of human activity. As of September 2003, eight grizzlies have died in the past two years as a result of human activity, according to The Bow Valley Grizzly Bear Alliance. There are only 50 to 60 grizzlies in the entire park.

In gateway towns like Banff clashes with wildlife are common. So is tension between no-growth conservationists and pro-growth tourism businesses. For a while, Banff seemed to be heading the way of the Great Smokies, which we'll visit shortly. In 1996, a major study revealed how bad things were getting in Banff: Too much human activity in the valley. Too few forest fires allowed to renew the ecosystem. Too many cars in the high country.

Business and government leaders met to search their civic souls. How to save the park without dying economically? First, they asked themselves why visitors crossed oceans to see Banff. The appeal, they concluded, was threefold: nature, history, and a sense of place so captivating that they themselves had chosen to live here. Yet all three were threatened. Banff village itself was losing its soul to cookie-cutter fast-food franchises and shops full of imported souvenirs. It was turning into Anytouristtown.

So they worked out a plan, the Banff Heritage Tourism Strategy, designed to refocus businesses and visitors on what the park was all about, and to provide goods and services geared for park lovers, not city lovers. Coordinator Robert Sandford calls it "a new alignment. People began to see that grizzlies and wolves were as important to tourism as they were to the ecosystem."

The Banff Strategy has far to go, but it's picking up steam. In 2001, 82 partners signed on to a "Year of the Great Bear" public-awareness campaign. In 2002, strategy members organized around the "Year of Mountain" and in 2003 joined a two-year "Wonder of Water" initiative. The Banff Springs Hotel returned 32 acres (13 hectares) of golf course to natural habitat and added a nature-guide program. The cadet camp and airstrip are closed. Tour-bus commentaries now cover ecology. Other gateways are taking notice, says Sandford, and discovering that "the heritage strategy can affirm local values and ways of life."

Would such an approach work in the U.S., at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Let's pay a spring visit. In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, bordering the park, the T-shirt shops are open to the April air. In nearby Pigeon Forge, weekenders sit in chairs on motel lawns, watching lanes of traffic creep by. These towns have used their parkside locations to become entertainment centers: outlet malls, amusement rides, souvenir shops, four Ripley's museums. The familiar wildlife difficulties abound. At one oil-drum-shaped hotel above Gatlinburg, signs warn guests to beware of bears seeking garbage.

Set against a Smokies backdrop, Gatlinburg is as jarring as a clown in a choir, but its economy hardly needs the park any more. The few local visionaries who promote heritage and natural beauty fight an uphill battle.

A few hills to the west, however, the gateway community of Townsend pointedly bills itself "The Peaceful Side of the Smokies." I was eager to see it. Had Townsend gotten it right? But my visit two years ago was—disheartening. I found oversize signs and parking lots sprouting along a newly widened highway. The Peaceful Side was becoming the Scenic Screech.

Undaunted, Tennessee has begun adding more lanes to a 2.6-mile (4.2-kilometer) stretch of U.S. 321 east of downtown Gatlinburg. Expansion of an additional eight miles (thirteen kilometers) is on the drawing boards. A wider road could potentially wall off the park's black bears from needed browsing areas. Easy access to unzoned land would make the highway an incubator for strip malls. Would people cross oceans, or even a creek, to see that?

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